14 May 2014

FRANK- Review

I didn't know a damn thing about Frank Sidebottom before seeing this movie, and many fans of the singer might argue that I still don't. Rather than a straight-up biopic of the singer, director Lenny Abrahamson and writers Peter Straughan and Jon Ronson have made something more fictionalised and tragi-comic, and the result might have been infinitely more annoying in the hands of lesser filmmakers.

In seaside suburbia, we meet Jon, a keyboard player played by Domnhall Gleeson, who is quite comprehensively stumped in his ambitions of creating great music. He's blown away by the arrival of the eclectic band Soronprfbs for a disastrous gig in which he winds up filling in for a suicidal band member, and particularly transfixed by their eccentric frontman Frank, who always wears a giant fibre-glass head to obscure his own face. When they take Jon on the road to help record their new album, he is convinced that the band will become mega-famous, just as soon as he figures out what's going on inside that head (inside that other head) of Frank's.

The problem that most straight biopics of musicians wander into, whether it's the rote Ray kind or the more eclectic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll type, is to languor over the unhappiness or decline in the life of their protagonist. By contrast, Frank is more of a concept film- it's more about the idea of Frank Sidebottom's cult popularity than about a by-numbers reconstruction of the life and times of Chris Sievey. It's easy to imagine that certain departures they've made being slappable offences in less competent hands, but the overall effect is very nice indeed.

For starters, in having dropped the Sidebottom part, there's a delicious double entendre to be had- does the head make Frank Frank, or is it what makes Frank frank, in terms of his unrestrained creativity? Michael Fassbender's performance only enhances the enigma of the central character, giving a selfless, often muffled performance from inside a big round mask. He's an object of affection for both Jon and theremin-playing vocalist Clara, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.

She's the best I've seen her in a while here, making a tempestuous, often physically dangerous, but still very loving character out of what could have been a Manic Pixie Dream Girl character. That we empathise with her instantly is the first signifier that Jon might not really be our hero- neither Clara nor the rest of the band see what Frank finds so "cherishable" about him. Together, Domnhall Gleeson and the filmmakers pull off a seldom seen sleight of hand with their protagonist, getting us to sympathise with Jon's creative block and his hero worship of Frank and co, before making us realise what an arsehole he was being all along.

Maybe that's going a bit far, but it's simply to say that the film isn't afraid to make our protagonist unlikeable, and this becomes abundantly clear over the course of the film. Gleeson doesn't ever play it as openly antagonistic, and nor is the character written that way, but his character clearly starts out as a creative capitalist, fully expecting a return of respect, gratitude and fame for his investment in this band. As for his own halting musical efforts, he seems strangled by his own expectations of himself, and readers, you had better fucking believe that I sympathise with that in a character.

Whoa, things got real there, so let's resume normal service. If all of this concept film stuff sounds high-faluting, then the film disguises it better than my dissection might suggest. It's really very funny and warm for the most part, in a way that's slightly reminiscent of Almost Famous, for Jon's initial awe at Soronprfbs, or the garage band antics of Sex Bob-Omb in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and yet it's much more alternative than either of those. There's also a very funny visual motif based around Jon's Twitter and social media which, again, would have been a slappable offence in a lesser film, but instead fits right in with the film's alternative mode of narration.

Frank is tragi-comic gold, and one of the few films in recent years that proves to be just as moving as it is funny. Lots of biopics of musicians fudge the key change from ecstatic to sombre, but Abrahamson, Ronson and Straughan gleefully syncopate each of those moods all the way through, leading to a bittersweet film whose heart feels right at home in the cult bracket. Some viewers won't like that they don't get to hear songs like Guess Who's Been On Match Of The Day, but it's not a film that goes after likeability, and its unorthodox appeal is a fragile, but undeniable thing all on its own.

Frank is still showing at selected cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Frank, why not leave a comment below? In the meantime, if Soronprfbs isn't your bag, here's a bit of GWBOMOTD for you...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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